Monday, April 2, 2012

Is This the Sun? Cont'd

In the last post, “Is This the Sun?” I asked you to study two paintings by Vincent van Gogh in which he used olive trees as his subject.

Here they are:

 Olive Trees, 1889, Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Olive Trees, 1889, Museum of Modern Art

Before I demonstrate their similarities and differences, I will explain another ingredient all artists use to make a picture: the traditions of art. I have discussed this before in previous posts:  “Loper’s Link”;  “Seeing is Believing, Part II”; “How Creation Happens”; “How Creation Happens, Cont’d”; “Making Connections”; “Tackling Transfers.”

To make pictures, artists transform their subjects into picture ideas.  To do so, they orchestrate light, line, color, and space, and adapt relevant traditions of art.

Here’s how it works.

My 7-year-old granddaughter showed me a drawing she made in school:

Kaari Bowman, Picasso Mixed with Awesomeness, 2012
 When I asked her to tell me about her picture, she explained that her art teacher showed her class  these drawings by Picasso:

Picasso, Pictures from a Sketchbook
Her teacher also explained cubism and distortion.  She then asked the students in the class to draw a portrait using the visual ideas they had learned.

Kaari told me she made each eye different, one bigger and one smaller, and each looking in a different direction.  She told me she especially liked how she “distorted” the nose and mouth.  She used a player from her favorite NFL team, the Falcons, as her subject, but #28 did not refer to any specific player; she just liked the way the number looked. 

I asked her about the almond shaped repetitive patterns on the “shirt.” I thought they were particularly rhythmic, repeating the shape of the eyes.  I thought she might have made an aesthetic decision. 

“Oh, no, Grandma,” she said, “I made them to show the holes in the shirt’s “mesh.”

Did I say she is seven years old?

Creation happens when one budding artist borrows visual ideas from another artist, adjusts the ideas to a new interest, and goes to work.

Van Gogh did this too.

Now let’s explore his pictures upside down:

Alisa Bowman (yes, she is Kaari’s mother) stated the differences this way:

The "sun" picture: Warm, yellows and burnt hues, wavy lines, lots of curves, three somewhat triangular pieces/planes wedged together.

The "cloudy day" one: Blues, colder (but still warm when compared to other pictures), blues and greens, wavy lines, four bumpy planes sandwiched and stacked on top of each other.

If we look at enlarged details, we see this:

The small, rectilinear color shapes van Gogh uses in the “sun” picture originated in mosaics.  Look at the following detail from Justinian and his Court:
Ravenna Mosaic: San Vitale, Justinian and His Court (Justinian, detail), 526-48
Notice how the tesserae circle the “head.”  Notice how the combination of the rectilinear tiles and the color outlines around the “face,” the “nose,” the “eyes,” the “ears” compartmentalize the colors.  Notice how the curvy directional tiles help build a slight three-dimensionality in the “face.” Even though this is a static orchestration, notice how the very placement of the tiles makes all of the units “move” in a circular motif.

In the “sun” picture, the animation derives from the nature of the brush strokes combined with the gnarled orchestration of “tree trunks,” the circular spinning of “foliage,” and the strands of “shadows” that resemble ponytails flying unattached to racing ponies.  Units of “trees” pull left and right; the “sky” meets the “mountains” and “treetops” in a soft V, while the entire “sky” unit swirls and loops, and the entire “undergrowth” undulates and bulges like molten lava.

Now look at this detail of the “foliage” in the “trees”:

The rectilinear brush strokes rise upwards and fold over like bowed heads.  This circular movement echoes the swirling activity in the “sky” and “sun.”  However, in the “foliage,” the rounded units bulge forward.  In the “sky” and the “sun,” the circular motion is centrifugal and sucks the round yellow color unit into a vortex that recedes in space. 

In the “cloud” picture, we see another van Gogh adaptation of tradition, this time from Delacroix:

Delacroix, Good Samaritan, 1849, Private Collection 
                       Good Samaritan (after Delacroix), 1890, Van Gogh Museum                   
Van Gogh adapts Delacroix’s pulled brush strokes into looser, more obvious “stripes.” He does so for the same reason Delacroix did so: to express movement, but van Gogh’s strips of color are more obvious and omnipresent than Delcroix’s.

In the “cloud” picture, these linear color units swirl and curl, creating horizontal rhythms that recede into deeper space.  They flow backwards like an ebbing tide and the “clouds” continue the undulating push into deep space. 

Look again at the picture right side up and notice how much further back in space that “cloud” unit appears.  Look at how it “mounds” into soft bulges like an upturned paw.  Look at how it repeats the roiling mounds of “foliage” and “mountains.”

That, briefly, is the art in these two pictures. The art has very little to do with the weather, where the sun was or might have been, or where the “shadows” were or might have been.  Van Gogh birthed a new visual idea each time he encountered his subject and, in each picture, he recorded what he discovered thereby permitting us to understand it. 

If we look carefully.

Finally, here are several photographs of his subject.
Olive orchard with the Alpilles in the background, 1986. Photograph by Jean Delrieux (printed in Van Gogh in Saint-Rémy and Auvers, Ronald Pickvance, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1986, p. 160)
Olive Trees in the Fields of San Remy, Photograph, Van Gogh Museum website
Olive Grove and Les Alpilles, Photograph, Van Gogh Museum website

As you can see, van Gogh invented new matter (aka color stuff) for each of his pictures.  He expressed the meaning of his aesthetic experience, his adventure in perception, as he subjected each subject of olive trees to a new interest.

Before my next post, examine the following picture, and compare and contrast it to the ones discussed in this one:

Vincent van Gogh, The Olive Orchard, 1889, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Chester Dale Collection  

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